Was there a trade-off to all that good internationalism that followed World War II? Well, as one set of nationalist myths was slowly peeled away, and sovereignty as the exclusive property of the nation dissolved into international organizations like the Council of Europe, NATO, the European Community, Warsaw Pact, and ComEcon (not all voluntary, of course), other myths became reality: the nation as an expression of ethnicity. In some cases, nations benefitted from the Nazi’s removal and extermination of minorities–those who were considered problems of integration .
However, the post-war settlement also led to new boundaries and expulsion of other minority populations who asserted their own national claim on the same territory. Germans were forced from Eastern European states, especially Czechoslovakia and Poland; these nations could regard themselves as more ethnically pure. Even Germany could benefit: almost all its minority population exterminated, the sense of Germany being a nation of Germans was realized. The “guest workers” who came from Spain, then Portugal, and then Turkey could be isolated from the main population, nationality remaining elusive, and the perception of ethnic purity preserved. Obviously, Germany deals today with the integration of Turks, in particular, despite their efforts to prevent it from happening.
Poland provides a compelling case of how one such purified state deals with ‘Europeanization.’ Poland’s woes are storied: the partition by Austria, Prussia and Russia; failure of the democratic movement in the 1830s; the antagonism of German minorities after World War I; another partition, by Germany and the Soviet Union; and the domination of the Soviet Union in the post-war era.
Recently attention has been given to the treatment of Jews in Poland. Once a refuge for Ashkenazi, what was once “the paradise of the Jews” has come under scrutiny for its antisemitism. Historian Jan Gross, in particular, has pursued Polish antisemitism in a series of publications, most recently Neighbors and Fear. Neighbors, a micro-history of a pogrom, studied exterminationist violence against Jews outside the context of Nazi direction–wholly pursued by Poles, independently and spontaneously. Fear, though, raises more disturbing possibilities: the perpetuation of antisemitism in the postwar era as a dominant feature of Polish politics, both communist and nationalist.
Poland’s central collective narrative is of a morally clean nation that has witnessed horror but not been its collaborator. If there is a single thread to this narrative it is the notion that Poland is untainted by the Holocaust. The standard denials of culpability in pogroms and purges of Jews during or after the war, however, have been slowly unwinding since the 2001 publication of a book called Neighbors [sic] by Jan Gross, a US historian of Polish-Jewish origin. [New Statesman, Feb 18, 2008]
[Poles] being a direct witness to Nazi atrocities — Jews from all over Europe were herded to concentration camps in Poland — unleashed a brutal anti-semitism in the country that had for almost nine centuries been home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities.
His conclusions are harsh: “A very brutal anti-semitism was widespread in Poland,” he told his audience. “Many Poles agreed with the opinion that Hitler should have a monument elevated for helping Poland solve the Jewish question. That was happening not in only Poland, but in all of post-war Europe.” [Economist, Jan 31, 2008]
According to Gross, Polish anti-semitism stems from the fear of the Polish people of giving back properties to the Holocaust survivors, as well as the feeling of guilt for their actions during the War. Gross also points the finger at the reproaches of the Polish church. He challenges the theory that the origins of post-war anti-semitism is the unproportionally high number of Jews in high positions in the communist regime. [Café Babel, Jan 28, 2008]
Gross’ assertion, that Polish political culture nurtures antisemitism, is at odds with Poles’ self-image of a nation that has suffered under both German occupation and communism. Victimhood and resistance are not cleansing in themselves. It does not erase the fact that Poles could, at times, act as agents of German policies or independently pursue their own exterminations.
Antisemtism after World War Two was not necessarily a racist discourse to oppress a people. It was a blunt weapon used by political rivals. Antisemtism played a central role in the suppression of competition between factions of Poland’s communism. Elements within the government who were more closely associated with Soviet (Judaicized) communism were targets of an efforts to purify native communism.
The 1960s saw a new force appear, the Partisans, a loose group of party leaders united by a similar political background, combining nationalism and communism, under the leadership of General Mieczyslaw Moczar, head of the interior ministry. Moczar accused Gomulka of supporting these “Muscovites”. Gomulka succumbed, denouncing the student activists as “Zionist” agents. By the end of 1968, two-thirds of Poland’s Jews had been driven into emigration.
The regime trundled on into another round of brutality and infighting and two years later, in 1970, insurrection broke out in the Baltic ports: Elblag, Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin and was suppressed at the cost of many lives. Enter Jaruzelski. The 1968 campaign was largely based on the myth of Judeo-communism (Zydo-komuna) and developed a popular stereotype of Jewish communism to purify communism: the Jews as the dark side of communism. Whatever is wrong in communism is due to them. Jews spread disease. But those bad old days are gone, aren’t they? [New Statesman]
Of course, real Jews–what few remained after the Holocaust–experienced violence and repression, as Karl Sauerland’s memoirs attest, or that is in evidence at recent events.
“The Jews are attacking us! We need to defend ourselves,” shouted Prof. Bogoslav Wolniewicz, to stormy applause. About 1,000 people gathered for special services Sunday at the church, organized by the Committee Against Defamation of the Church and For Polishness, along with the anti-Semitic Radio Maryja. Local residents were informed of the service by posters that proclaimed: “The kikes will not continue to spit on us.” [Ha’aretz, Feb 12, 2008]
The key is antisemitism as a tool of political discourse, used to test the purity of one’s ideology. However, this does not seem like genuine antisemitism–not big “A” antisemitism that emerged with the racial sciences of the nineteenth century. This antisemitism is focused less on Jews than Poles own xenophobia, turning the Jew into the template of the foreigner. It is a symptom of a society that blames its problems on foreign influence, even after communism’s retreat. And it can survive without Jews, generalizing who the foreigner is in pursuit of a pure nation.
The PiS government (2004-2007) sold itself quite successfully as a party of “real Poles”, believers and families. It was a call to the faithful. Its spoke the language of “us and them,” of hidden interests and threats within the institutions of state. [New Statesman]